The first beams of sunlight were touching the hilltops as Chris finished loading the last of his things in the saddlebags. They were going to have to travel light and make due with what they found on the trail. With the exception of Vin, all the others were standing at the edge of town to say good luck.
"I'll take real good care of Vin while your gone, but I expect you to do the same with JD. He has enough to deal with riding that damn horse, he don't need to be worrying about you jumping down his throat every time he turns around." Buck said after he pulled Chris aside for a little brotherly chat. "And I want all his body parts returned in the same condition as when they left."
"I'll do everything in my power to bring your little playmate home Buck, but who will protect me from him? This is nuts...I can't believe I let Cooper coerce me into this!"
"So why are you doing it, we can wait on Vin getting better, then saddle up and ride away, never looking back."
"I sat out on the street last night till two in the morning, pondering that same thing. I don't need all this crap; we certainly don't get paid well enough for the garbage we take. But, the longer I sat the more I realized I wanted to stay sitting here. If we go, we will eventually go our separate ways, that's just logical and I'm not ready to say goodbye to any of you yet. Even more surprising I don't want to say goodbye to the people we have become friends with here. That's why I am willing to take this garbage from Cooper, plus I really dislike him. I want to take that belligerent, smug look off his face and stuff it were the sun don't see!" Chris straightened out his saddle blanket then tightened the cinch on his black gelding Pony. "That's my talking ration for the week, you can notify JD not to expect any conversation from me."
"Oh that's a news flash, the white blaze will be surprised right off the face of that stud of JD's. Chris Larabee not going to be making conversation, pigs probably fly too!" Buck slapped his old friend on the back. "Here comes your opposition, man I hate to say it, but that it some damn nice horse flesh!" Buck exclaimed watching the approaching horses and riders.
The likes of these horses had never been seen in Four Corners; they were fleet, fit and fast. Superior conditioned muscles rippled under gleaming dark mahogany bay coats. Judge Cooper pulled his buggy up beside Chris. "They are out of my best Arab mares and by the best thoroughbred stallions money can buy. They have been bred for speed and endurance, the mares came from the deserts of Egypt and the stallions from England, all centuries of fine breeding."
Chris looked up from the horses into the challenging cobalt eyes of Tom Cooper, "Class, whether in man or animal always shows Mr. Larabee. Yours don't even come close to rating. Your welcome to cry uncle now before we humiliate you totally."
"Thank you, but me and my little Texas bred cayuse plan on doing just fine." Chris put a foot in his stirrup and swung his leg over his dependable, steady gelding. Pony was as game as any horse Chris had the privilege to sit on; it was the crazy red stud horse that had him worried. "Buck where the hell is JD, the sooner we leave the sooner we can kick butt and get home?"
No sooner were the words out of Chris's mouth than they heard the stallion trumpet his own challenge. The two bays danced nervously under their riders, anxious to give the stallion lots of room. JD appeared from behind a building, having skirted the town instead of riding down the main street. Windy pranced sideways towards them, before spinning and shying away; dropping his head he tried to snatch the reins out of JD's hands. Chris could hear JD cluck in the battle to keep the stallion moving forewords, riding lightly with seat and hands As he got closer he could see JD mouthing the words 'don't buck...don't buck...don't buck' as he fought to keep the animal under control. The bays skittered further out of the way.
"Go git em, JD!" Buck hollered adding to the confusion.
The judge smiled to himself, he hadn't had to bring his best horses out for this race, but he didn't want to just beat them. He wanted to degrade them in front of the whole town; he wanted them to be sorry they ever showed their faces in this territory. When he brought real law into the area the people will thank him for chasing this group of scum away.
"Ready, set...Go!" The judge shouted.
Windy ducked his head getting ready to go into a bucking fit when JD slapped his legs against the stallion's side. Surprised, the stallion lunged forward into a full gallop in two strides, charging past the other horses like they were standing still.
Chris exchanged concerned glances with his four other men as he cantered off after JD. At this rate the stud horse will probably kill himself before the first day had a chance to pass by; Chris just hoped he didn't take the kid out with him.
+ + + + + + +
Chris spotted the dust storm before he saw the horse and rider. JD was cantering the big horse in a large circle, waiting for Chris to catch up with him. He was finally able to bring the horse down to a jerky trot as Chris rode up near to him, but still maintained some distance between the two horses. Windy was lathered from head to tail, and Chris could see JD's shirt sticking to his sweat soaked skin already.
"We have a hell of a long ways to go yet JD, you plan on riding like that the whole way?"
"God I hope not!" Came the huffing reply.
"Okay...if we are going to win this race we need a plan. We don't have a hope in hell of out running those horses. So far as I can see they are staying on the road, which means you, and I have to take a more direct route. We'll head across the desert for a while then travel up into the mountains, before we cross the Rio Grande and head into Santa Fe. The trouble with staying in the desert is finding watering holes. Wish Vin was here, he knows this country like the deer and mountain goats."
The two men pulled up to a halt, ahead of them lay nothing but sand, rock and sandstone formations. Mountain peaks stood out in the far horizon, the badlands lying between them; it was a rugged country, not fit for the timid.
Windy pawed the sand beneath his feet and snorted in a great gulp of desert air, anxious to be moving again. "Glad one of us wants to go in this direction." Chris nodded at the kid as they continued on.
+ + + + + + +
The two men talked very little as the proceeded across the deep sandy footing. Chris was starting to have very serious doubts about the wisdom of coming this way. Both horses were now covered in lather from the repressive heat that built as the day progressed. So far they had not had any water except the little they carried in their canteens. The mountains in the distance did not appear to be getting any closer, but became bleary as hot heat waves rose off the scorching sand.
The two finally stopped in the shade of a sandstone tower. To their surprise the exhausted horses stood head to tail, rubbing their sweaty heads on each other.
"Just watch your stallion don't suddenly decide to take a chunk out of Pony's hide JD." This was not where he wanted to lose a mount and end up stranded on foot. "How many rides have you actually had on that guy outside of the corral anyway JD?"
"Counting this one...three. I have no idea what to expect from him. Sure would have been a lot easier if I could have ridden Seven. I feel like I got us in this mess Chris. I'm really sorry."
"Like Buck said, ain't your fault, Cooper was looking to get rid of us from the start. You turning this horse into something useful was just the icing on the cake."
Chris watched as JD poured a hand full of water out of a canteen and watered the horses lips. JD had a sunny smile and a quick mind usually, Chris could see that one day in the future they could become better friends, but for the time being JD pretty much just continued to annoy him out of youthful inexperience. Buck on the other hand seemed to a found a soul mate of sorts in the kid. Buck lived for the ladies, but now seemed to have almost as much fun teasing the kid as he did chasing women. He could get as dangerous as a rogue grizzly bear though if someone else threatened the boy's safety. They were fun to watch; JD trying his best to become a man, while Buck constantly parted with manly wisdom that always seemed to just end up embarrassing JD.
"Let's go JD, sitting here isn't getting us any closer to water."
+ + + + + + +
The full moon guided the men along over the rough footing, as they walked slowly along. The horses stumbled with exhaustion behind them as the men pushed forward on their grueling trek. Under the coolness of night Chris kept them all moving. He wanted to be a lot closer to the mountain range and water by morning time, when the heat would hit again with a vengeance. Chris kept a watchful eye on JD as he and Windy had started the day over-taxing their systems and the day had not gotten any easier. So far both were holding up, in fact the stallion was finally manageable or so Chris thought.
The stallion suddenly threw his head up sniffing the wind. With a tug on the reins he almost yanked JD off his feet as he turned direction and dragged the youth behind him. JD tried with all his might to get the stallion stopped, but soon gave up and just struggled to keep up with the animal as they trudged through white sand towards another sandstone cliff. As they got closer JD could see a crack in the wall that opened into a narrow, steep path that was covered in animal tracks. The stallion showed no inclination to stop so JD wedged his body between the horse and the wall to get in front. Stumbling in the dark he clawed his way up the path; rocks rolled down the path as Windy dug his hooves into the ground to get traction propelling him upwards. JD felt a moment of panic when he felt the stallion was going to go right over top of him as he came to a particular steep section, but the stallion backed off until JD gave a pull on the hackamore's reins for him to follow.
The path suddenly widened into a small mesa, the rock wall extending up ten more feet on one side only. JD stopped to get some breath past his parched mouth and into his lungs when he felt the water drip on his arm. At first thinking it was sweat from his forehead he ignored it, but then Windy pushed him out of the way and moved to the other side of the mesa and dropped his head into some rocks. The soft gentle sound of water dripping down the walls finally got JD's attention. In a rock basin that was about a foot deep, water collected in a clear pool.
"JD where are you?" Chris's troubled voice reached him.
"Chris...up here!" JD yelled back. "We found water, just follow the path."
JD heard feet scramble on rocks then Chris appeared leading Pony.
JD grinned at Chris, water dripping out the side of his mouth. "Maybe it is a good thing I had to bring Windy instead."
"Yeah...I get the feeling your stud horse has forgotten more about surviving out here then you and I will ever know."
+ + + + + + +*
Filled with water the four pushed on again until the sun was about to peak over the horizon. They came to a small canyon surrounded by cliffs on three sides with only a ten-foot entrance. The men led the weary animals into it. JD was so dog-tired he could not get his arms to lift the saddle off Windy's back, so apologizing to the big horse he just dragged it off, letting the stirrup leathers and cinch slide across the horse's back and drop to the ground. Chris poured out a small amount of grain from one of his saddlebags to give to each of them. JD gave Windy's his, as he still would not let the other man near him.
JD took the rope he had been braiding the day before and tied it across the entrance. It wouldn't hold the horses if they really wanted to go, but hopefully they were as tired as the two men and would be content to bed down.
Without saying a word the two men dropped against their saddles. Chris handed JD a piece of beef jerky, which he managed to eat half of before sleep claimed him.
+ + + + + + +
By noon of that day the terrain was changing from desert back to grassy plains, with the base of the mountains reachable by evening. The mesquite and yucca plants gave way to juniper and pinon pine. They found another small watering hole in a grove of tamarisk, where they ate more jerky and the horses were able to graze on some dry prairie grass.
By late afternoon they were climbing out off the desert floor and into cooler grass and tree-lined hills. The sound of rushing water led them to a small gorge surrounded by silvery cottonwoods. River water pored over huge boulders whose surface's had been polished smooth and cascaded into cold clear pools. A fine mist sprayed up leaving cooling droplets on the hot men and horses.
"Come on JD, we'll set up camp over beyond those trees, this water is too noisy to sleep by."
They found a nice flat spot that needed little rock picking for their bedrolls. JD found the strongest tree he could to tie Windy up. Taking the rope he had braided, he tossed a loop over the studs hindquarters, then brought the rope between his hind legs, up under his belly, out the front legs through the halter and tied it to the tree. Chris looked at JD inquiring.
"He still don't tie, this way if he pulls back he hits the end of the rope with his butt, and hopefully stops pulling before breaking the lead shank or halter." JD said as he started running his dandy brush over the stallion, removing the days sweat and grime from his coat.
Chris wrapped a stout pair of hobbles on Pony's front legs so he could move around to graze. He would not stray away from camp and leave the company of Windy or Chris, but Chris did not want to take any chances out here. JD gathered up an arm full of grass for Windy, then the night supply of firewood.
Chris had already laid his bedroll out for the night, so JD followed suite, and then he spread both horses saddle blankets over a rock to let the sweat dry before morning.
"I'm going for a swim Chris...you coming too?" JD asked hopefully.
"You go ahead without me JD, I'll get supper going. I think I've had enough exercise for the day."
JD walked back to the river slipping and sliding on the pine needles that covered the ground. He wished Chris had come with him; Buck or Vin would probably have beaten him to the river already. JD knew he would have been Chris's last choice to come if he had a choice, but he hadn't. JD tried to keep out of the leader's way and do his share of the work. With Windy taking so much of his attention, he at least wasn't talking a mile a minute.
JD dropped over the bank of the gorge to get to the river edge, stripping off all his clothes, but his cotton longjohns. He had brought very little with him, so this was a good opportunity to wash the clothes he had worn the last two days.
With his clothes drying JD let out a war whoop, tucked his knees to his chest and leaped into the cold water. For the next half hour JD slid down rock waterfalls, splashed in clear pools and swam back and forth against the river's currant. The only thing that would have made it more fun would have been the company of his friends. With the sun gone behind the mountain JD broke out in goose bumps; as much as he hated to he climbed out of the river, and hobbled over the rocky beach in his bare feet. JD went to grab his clothes off the rocks where he left them to dry, but after searching all around couldn't find them. He walked up to the bank's edge to make sure this was where he got in the water.
It had to be, JD grinned to himself. He couldn't believe it; Chris was actually playing a joke on him. It would have been funnier if he had left JD his boots; the gravel was killing his feet. Oh well, it looked like he was trekking back to camp wet, nearly naked and with tender feet.
"Missing something sheriff!"
Standing against a tree Tom Cooper and the other Flying Bar X rider held JD's clothes and boots, his bowler hat sitting askew on Cooper's head.
+ + + + + + +
"How did you get here?" JD was shocked to see the two men.
"The road's right over that hill. How did you get here so fast, we never saw you anywhere on the trail? Cooper started to say, "My god...you came through the desert. We better be careful Spence, we're riding against crazy fools!" He laughed along with the tall rugged man beside him.
"Well crazy fool, you seem to be missing your clothes. You're going to look real cute riding into Santa Fe in your under-drawer's, bet the Governor going to be impressed by you all."
"Give me my clothes!"
"You hear that Spence, kids now a days just have the worst manners. Give me this's and give me that's. They don't know how to ask nice like anymore." Cooper said sarcastically holding the clothes above JD's head, just out of his reach.
"Give me my clothes, please!" JD said fuming inside.
"I wouldn't git so high and mighty, if I was you kid, considering the size of nappies your still wearing!" The brawny cowboy beside Cooper spoke in a gruff voice.
"That's okay Spence, if he wants his clothes he just has to come get them." Cooper waved them under JD's face to further antagonize the young man.
JD's shoulder caught Cooper in his midriff, sending them both crashing to the ground. JD was instantly on his feet, picking up his clothes trying to keep his back from the two men.
"You shouldn't have done that!"
"I just want my things, then I'm going back to my camp!" JD flushed as a high-pitched tremor came out in his voice.
Suddenly JD was soaring across the ground as Spence shoved him viciously from behind. JD dropped his clothes in his fight to regain his balance, then Cooper's powerful fingers closed around his arms and he was tossed back to Spence. JD tried to swing at the man, but had too much momentum and would have fallen if Spence hadn't reached out and grabbed him around his chest and threw him backwards to Cooper. This time JD managed to get an elbow up and connect with Cooper's jaw, before tumbling on his backside in the dirt. With a cry of rage Cooper picked up a handful of gravel and tossed it as hard as he could into JD face and eye's.
Blinded by the burning gravel in his eye's JD frantically crawled away from Cooper, kicking out as a hand grasped his ankle and dragged him back over the rocks and gravel. Strong hands bruised his underarm's as he was hauled to his feet. In a bleary haze he saw a fist come at him, but was powerless to move out of its way. The blow caught him across his cheek, snapping his head back.
The hands holding him up suddenly disappeared and JD felt himself swaying as Cooper and Spence circled around him. To the sound of laughter JD was again tossed back and forth between the two men, his bare feet stubbing along the rough ground. He tried calling out to Chris for help, but his voice seemed to have a mind of it's own as gasps were all he could get out.
Suddenly he found himself lying face down at the gorge edge. Fifteen feet below him the river flowed by, so JD launched to his knee's in an attempt to dive into the cool water. Cold talons grabbed the back of his longjohns, almost ripping them from his body as he was hauled back from the edge. JD's fingers left trails in the dirt as he tried clawing his way to freedom.
JD was flipped roughly onto his back, his arm's manhandled over his head and pinned there. Cooper's bulk settled on his stomach. JD thrashed under the man's weight, twisting and bucking to dislodge him. The harder JD fought the louder the two men laughed. Cooper pushed cruelly into JD's stomach with his seat bones and ground his wrists deeper into the ground.
"Get off...your hurting me!" JD wheezed out.
"Ah...you hear that Tom. The sheriff says your hurting him...ya big bully!" Spence bent over his belly laughing. "Ya whinny-assed cry baby!"
"You boys have had your fun, now get off him!"
Everything stopped at the menacing voice. Chris stood white lipped with his gun out, and his finger on the trigger.
Cooper got to his feet, pulling JD up with him and pushed him into Spence.
Spence held JD up, his arm wrapped around the kids bare chest. Feebly JD tried to pry the hands off him.
"I'm not going to repeat myself!"
"You won't shoot a judge's son, Larabee. You know all you are is a has-been, and the kid is just a wanna-be." Cooper said in an insolent manner.
"I wouldn't want to bet my life on that Cooper, your old man thinks I'm a gunslinger. If that's the case I have no qualms dropping you both where you stand."
"We'll settle this back in Four Corners, after you eat our dust. Let him go Spence!"
"No problem!" Turning Spence toppled JD off the bank to the river below.
Not hearing a splash Chris rushed to look over the bank. The other two men glanced over as well and burst out laughing before turning back to where they had tied their horses and left.
JD dangled a foot above the water his feet kicking hapless in the air, the back of his longjohns caught on the branch of a windfall.
+ + + + + + +
Chris made sure the men had ridden off, and then climbed down into the gorge. Wiggling his way out onto the log to where JD hung, Chris reached down with his knife and cut the material free. JD fell the last few feet into the river.
Chris waited on the shore as JD stood in about a foot of water and washed the grim out of his eye's and off his body. JD's teeth chattered as he once again walked across the beach to find his scattered clothes. Without a word JD picked up his clothes, turning in a circle he searched for any articles he might have missed. His hat appeared at his side, JD looked up at Chris who held the hat out to him.
"Thanks!" Is all he said as he added it to the pile in his arms. He slipped his bare feet into his boots and with water dripping off him made his way back to camp.
+ + + + + + +
Systematically JD hung his still damp clothes near the fire, then digging in his saddlebag brought out his last pair of britches, socks and clean shirt.
Chris appeared again beside him, a bottle in his hand. He dipped a finger in it, then started to rub it on the cut JD got on his back when his longjohns caught on the branch.
"What's that?" He shivered as the cool cream came in contact with his cold body.
"Nathan gave it to me before we left, it has yerba mansa in it, and something else. Said it's good to use on cuts and sores." JD then put on the rest of his dry clothes and went to gather more grass for Windy.
Again JD brought out his brush and started to curry the stallion, using short vigorous stokes.
"You planning on brushing the hair off that horse's hide? You seem to have something stuck in your craw, you want to talk about it?"
"You know it's because of your horse I came to the river, otherwise I wouldn't have heard a thing ."
A voice waft by him so soft that Chris had to strain to hear. "What ya mean because of Windy?"
"I was settling down to eat and he starts acting all up, nickering and spinning around. I was coming to get you before he either got caught up in all those ropes, or got away. Wouldn't let me anywhere near him."
JD gave the stallion an affectionate final pat.
"Can I borrow Pony for a little while Chris?"
"You planning on getting him or yourself shot?"
"I'm not planning on it!"
"You want me to come with you?"
"No...I have to do this alone."
"You be careful...Buck will hunt me down if anything happens to you!"
+ + + + + + +
JD took the hobbles off Pony and threw Chris's rigging back on him. Chris filled his coffee cup from the pot sitting on a flat rock in the fire as JD made his way out of camp.
Under the light of the stars JD quietly rode to the gorge, then paralleled it down to the roadway. A couple of hundred feet off the road he spotted a fire, tying Pony to a tree he snuck closer to the camp. Cooper and Spence both were curled up in bedrolls near the fire. JD didn't knew how either could sleep through all the snoring noises they were making. Their two horses snorted when they caught JD's scent, but were otherwise unconcerned by his presence.
JD inched his way into camp, two ropes dangling off his shoulder. Gritting his teeth he gently placed a loop each loosely around their legs. JD froze as Spence groaned and changed positions, before returning to his snoring. Letting the ropes slowly out behind him, he inched back to where Pony stood tied.
"Hey Cooper...you and I need to have a little talk!" JD woke the two slumbering men up. Startled they sat up in a rush and reached for their holsters.
"Yeah, I moved those over by that rock."
"You little $&$*#&...get him!" Cooper cursed.
JD hauled the slack out of the lariat's, pulling them tight against the men's ankles and proceeded to drag them down the road at a trot.
"Your dad said this was a horse race, that's all it is supposed to be. I just want to make sure we have an understanding." JD yelled over his shoulder.
"You little runt...ow...your a dead man Dunne!"
"Nope, that's not what I want to hear, I want to hear you say your just going to race us, nothing else!" JD kept trotting as the two bounced along, rolling into each other on the hard packed ground.
"Ow...you let us go right now and I'll kill you quick so you don't suffer a long time!"
"Still not the right words Cooper. You know this horse ain't as fast as your two, but he has lots of stamina, he can keep this up all night long, even faster!" JD lengthened the horse's stride out a little more.
"Say the words!"
"Ok...we're only going to race you, nothing else...now stop!"
JD checked back on Pony, bring him to a halt. The two men kicked their feet loose, and JD backed Pony away from them, as he rolled up the lariat's and draped them back over the saddle horn.
"I'm holding you to your word Cooper." JD cantered past them towards his own camp, leaving them to walk back.
+ + + + + + +
Chris lay on his bedroll listening to the hum of insects, waiting for JD to return. Windy let out a whinny before Chris heard the sound of Pony's heavy breathing, and rock's sliding under his feet as he climbed up the slope to their camp.
JD slid off the saddle and loosened the cinch, so Pony could catch his breath. "Thanks for letting me borrow your horse Chris."
"You get done what you figured needed doing?"
"Let's just say I won't be the only one riding with road rash tomorrow. I hope it worked or I just lost some sleep time for nothing."
"Not me. I was asleep the whole time you were gone...in fact you just woke me up out of a great dream."
"Yeah right...I know you wouldn't sleep until your horse got brought back safe."